Friday, June 6, 2014

Judge Strikes Down Wisconsin Gay Marriage Ban

A federal judge struck down Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage on Friday, ruling it unconstitutional.

It wasn't clear whether U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's 88-page ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriages to begin immediately. But the ruling makes Wisconsin the 27th state where same-sex couples can marry under law or where a judge has ruled they ought to be allowed to wed.

County clerks in Milwaukee and Madison said they had just learned of the decision and were trying to figure out if and when they could begin issuing marriage licenses. Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki said he was keeping his office open while an attorney reviewed the decision in case he could begin accepting marriage licenses Friday evening.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in February on behalf of four gay couples, then later expanded to eight, challenging Wisconsin's constitutional ban on gay marriage. Messages left with ACLU's attorneys were not immediately returned Friday.

A spokeswoman for Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, whose office defended the law in court, did not immediately return a message.

The lawsuit alleged that Wisconsin's ban violates the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to equal protection and due process, asserting the prohibition deprives gay couples of the legal protections that married couples enjoy simply because of their gender.

State marriage bans have been falling around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

In May, Czarnezki and Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell said they had trained additional staff to issue marriage licenses and worked with the chief judge to have judges on hand to perform ceremonies.

Wisconsin has a five-day waiting period between the application for and issuing of marriage licenses. County clerks can waive the waiting period at their discretion as long as applicants pay a $25 fee.

Czarnezki and McDonell have said it wasn't unusual to waive the waiting period for service members and others with special circumstances, and they would do so for gay couples who pay the fee.

Voters amended the Wisconsin Constitution in 2006, to outlaw gay marriage or anything substantially similar. The state has offered a domestic partner registry that affords gay couples a host of legal rights since 2009, but its future is in doubt; the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court is currently weighing whether it violates the constitution.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 Republican candidate for president, has a long history of opposing gay marriage and Wisconsin's 2009 domestic registry law. But in recent months he's avoided talking directly about the state's ban, which he supported, saying it's an issue that needs to be decided by the courts and state voters who can amend the constitution.

Walker's likely Democratic challenger in the governor's race, Mary Burke, supports legalizing gay marriage.

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